Jewish World Review Feb. 19, 2003 / 17 Adar I, 5763

BODYFIRE: To increase your physical performance, work your mental muscle

By Eric Harr | ''Baseball is 90 percent mental,'' baseball legend Yogi Berra once said. ''The other half is physical.'' Whatever he meant, the famous quote underscores an important point: The mind is a powerful component of sports and exercise performance.

In fitness, however, we tend to focus more on the muscles of our body, while giving our ''mental muscle'' short shrift. Yet by honing our mental performance, we can improve our physical performance -- and that gives us better results and gratification from our workouts.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D, a sports psychologist and author of ''Prime Sports: Triumph of the Athlete performance.

-- Focus More Narrowly: Experts agree that much of Tiger Woods' golfing greatness stems from his steely mental focus. For example, when Woods sets up for a putt, he kneels down, grabs the bill of his baseball hat with both hands zeros in on one thing: the hole. Likewise, learning to mentally zero in during your workouts can work wonders on your performance.

''Begin by simply focusing on what you're doing,'' says Taylor. ''For example, if you're walking on the treadmill, don't read the paper, talk to friends or watch TV. Listen to inspiring music on a Walkman, and tune in to your breathing, your heartbeat and your technique. Focus exclusively on what you're body is doing. That leads to better mental performance.''

For most of us, distracting thoughts can cloud our minds during exercise. To combat this in your next workout, try to maintain a clear focus on what you're doing for as long as possible. You may start with just 60 seconds, and that's fine. Over time, try to extend that mental focus to five minutes, 10 or even an entire workout.

-- Visualize success: While ''mental imagery'' may sound a bit new age, if you use it correctly, it can be a powerful tool.

Effective visualization incorporates all five human senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. ''In mental imagery, you try to reproduce the actual experience in your mind in as rich detail as possible,'' says Taylor.

Mental imagery serves a similar purpose that rehearsals do for actors. It allows you to ''practice'' before the big performance, and that fortifies your confidence.

''All the research shows that mental imagery helps build confidence because people can literally 'see' themselves succeed -- and that's important,'' says Taylor. ''Some evidence also shows that imagery subtlety triggers the muscles people are visualizing, and physical skills can be developed because of that.''

Here's how to do it: The night before an important workout or event, find a quiet place, close your eyes and relax. For five to 10 minutes, picture yourself performing the way you want to perform. Visualize yourself moving with strength and ease, and tune in to how that feels.

-- Get emotional: According to Taylor, there are five essential mental factors most directly that affect sports and exercise performance: motivation, confidence, intensity, focus and emotion.

Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong epitomizes what it means to use emotion to fuel higher levels of sports performance. When you watch Lance in particularly strenuous stages in a race, he's focused, inspired, positive and passionate. He lets his emotions well up inside of him and, much to the dismay of his competitors, completely unfurls those emotions into the pedals of his bike.

-- Define your own limits: Did you know that, technically, the bumblebee cannot fly? Scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) conducted a series of tests and analyses, and ''concluded'' that there is simply no way the bee can overcome its weight and body design to fly. Thankfully, the scientists didn't tell the bee, who flies about in blissful disregard of such expert conclusions.

The bumblebee illustrates a key concept of exercise and sports performance: Much of the time, we allow others to define our limits and determine what we can and cannot do, and we set goals based on those external perceptions. While it's important to lay out manageable exercise goals, it's also important to aim high once in a while. The act of setting a uniquely challenging goal serves as tacit show of faith in yourself, and that rallies your mind to the cause.

''When we are striving to achieve a challenging goal, we say, 'I'm going to set my mind to this,' not, 'I'm going to set my body to this,' '' says Taylor. See the difference?

In fitness, sports and in life, we can achieve much more than we give ourselves credit for -- if we just set our minds to it.

Eric Harr is a professional triathlete, author and television host. His new book is The Portable Personal Trainer: 100 Tips to Energize Your Workouts and Bring out the Athlete in You. Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Distributed by TMS